Podcast Episode 15: The Flannan Isles Mystery

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1900 three lighthouse keepers vanished from a remote, featureless island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was in good order and the log showed no sign of trouble, but no trace of the keepers has ever been found. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore the conundrum of the men’s disappearance — a classic mystery of sea lore.

We’ll also ponder the whereabouts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday, admire Esaw Wood’s quest for a wood saw that would saw wood, and wonder why drinking a glass of water might necessitate a call to the auto club.

Sources for our segment on the Flannan Isles lighthouse:

Christopher Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain, 1983.

“The Mystery of Flannan Isle,” Northern Lighthouse Board, retrieved June 18, 2014.

Mike Dash, “The Vanishing Lighthousemen of Eilean Mór,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998).

Sources for the story about Robert Louis Stevenson’s bequest of his birthday:

Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Graham Balfour, Works, Volume 24, 1905.

Elmo Scott Watson, “Famous Writer Gave Most Unusual ‘Christmas Gift’ in All History,” Ironwood [Mich.] Times, Dec. 23, 1938.

“Inherits Birthday,” Sherbrooke [Quebec] Telegram, Jan. 11, 1934.

Here’s the deed:

Vailima, June 19, 1891.

I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind, and pretty well, I thank you, in body:

In consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, daughter of H.C. Ide, in the town of Saint Johnsbury, in the county of Caledonia, in the state of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday;

And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; …

And in consideration that I have met H.C. Ide, the father of the said Annie H. Ide, and found him about as white a land commissioner as I require:

Have transferred, and do hereby transfer, to the said Annie H. Ide, all and whole my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors;

And I direct the said Annie H. Ide to add to the said name of Annie H. Ide the name Louisa — at least in private; and I charge her to use my said birthday with moderation and humanity, et tamquam bona filia familia, the said birthday not being so young as it once was, and having carried me in a very satisfactory manner since I can remember;

And in case the said Annie H. Ide shall neglect or contravene either of the above conditions, I hereby revoke the donation and transfer my rights in the said birthday to the President of the United States of America for the time being:

In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal this nineteenth day of June in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety-one.

Robert Louis Stevenson.
Witness, Lloyd Osbourne,
Witness, Harold Watts.

To Ide Stevenson wrote, “Herewith please find the Document, which I trust will prove sufficient in law. It seems to me very attractive in its eclecticism; Scots, English, and Roman law phrases are all indifferently introduced, and a quotation from the works of Haynes Bailey can hardly fail to attract the indulgence of the Bench.”

A bizarre coincidence: Just before we recorded this episode I discovered that Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David Alan Stevenson, designed the Flannan Isles lighthouse! I’d had no inkling of this in planning or writing the episode; the two stories are set literally a world apart.

“The Story of Esaw Wood,” by W.E. Southwick, from Carolyn Wells’ 1918 anthology Such Nonsense!:

Esaw Wood sawed wood.

Esaw Wood would saw wood!

All the wood Esaw Wood saw Esaw Wood would saw. In other words, all the wood Esaw saw to saw Esaw sought to saw.

Oh, the wood Wood would saw! And oh, the wood-saw with which Wood would saw wood.

But one day Wood’s wood-saw would saw no wood, and thus the wood Wood sawed was not the wood Wood would saw if Wood’s wood-saw would saw wood.

Now, Wood would saw wood with a wood-saw that would saw wood, so Esaw sought a saw that would saw wood.

One day Esaw saw a saw saw wood as no other wood-saw Wood saw would saw wood.

In fact, of all the wood-saws Wood ever saw saw wood Wood never saw a wood-saw that would saw wood as the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood would saw wood, and I never saw a wood-saw that would saw as the wood-saw Wood saw would saw until I saw Esaw Wood saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Now Wood saws wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood.

Oh, the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw!

Oh, the wood Wood’s woodshed would shed when Wood would saw wood with the wood-saw Wood saw saw wood!

Finally, no man may ever know how much wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw, if the wood-saw Wood saw would saw all the wood the wood-saw Wood saw would saw.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Lincoln’s Lost Speech


On May 29, 1856, Abraham Lincoln spoke “like a giant enraged” for 90 minutes before a crowd of a thousand people at a political convention in Bloomington, Ill. Strangely, no one knows what he said. According to legend his oratory held the audience so spellbound that no one thought to record a word of it; more likely it was such a passionate denouncement of slavery that his political advisers thought it wisest to suppress it. But it electrified the audience, and the convention led to the establishment of the state Republican party.

“What actually did Lincoln say that evening in May, 1856, that made such a stupendous impact … and in ninety minutes transformed Lincoln from a circuit-riding Illinois lawyer and office-seeker into a national leader?” asks Elwell Crissey in Lincoln’s Lost Speech (1967). “Here we encounter a fascinating enigma in American history.”

Ulysses Grant, by contrast, had a “perfect speech” that he used on several occasions beginning in 1865. From Grant: A Biography (1982), by William S. McFeely:

In the afternoon there was a dinner at which tediously predictable worthies of New York — John A. Dix, Horace Greeley, and a divine or two — gave speeches. At the close of the tributes, Grant rose and, as he had done in St. Louis more than a year earlier, gave the speech which was to become his trademark. The New York Times report included the response of his audience: ‘I rise only to say I do not intend to say anything. [Laughter] I thank you for your kind words and your hearty welcome. [Applause].’

Still Life


French anatomist Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) blurred the line between science and art by arranging human and animal bodies in fanciful poses. By replacing the eyeballs with glass replicas and injecting a distorting resin into the facial blood vessels, he achieved some remarkably expressive effects — his Fetus Dancing the Jig is best left to the imagination.

Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History preserves a collection of wax models that were used in teaching medicine in the 18th century (below). Modelers might refer to 200 corpses in preparing a single wax figure. “If we succeeded in reproducing in wax all the marvels of our animal machine,” wrote director Felice Fontana, “we would no longer need to conduct dissections, and students, physicians, surgeons and artists would be able to find their desired models in a permanent, odor-free and incorruptible state.” Goethe praised artificial anatomy as “a worthy surrogate that, ideally, substitutes reality by giving it a hand.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

(From Roberta Panzanelli, ed., Ephemeral Bodies, 2008.)

Far From Home

bouvet island lifeboat

In 1964 British meteorologist Allan Crawford visited tiny, freezing Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, the most remote island in the world, to investigate the possibility of establishing a weather station there. When his helicopter touched down near a shallow lagoon in the island’s interior he found a surprise:

There was an abandoned whaleboat in quite good condition, though lying at the bottom of the lagoon, gunwales awash. What drama, we wondered, was attached to this strange discovery? There were no markings to identify its origin or nationality. On the rocks a hundred yards away was a forty-four gallon drum and a pair of oars, with pieces of wood and a copper flotation or buoyancy tank opened out flat for some purpose.

Thinking that castaways might have landed on the uninhabited island, Crawford’s party made a brief search but found no human remains. The boat’s presence has never been explained.

(From Crawford’s book Tristan da Cunha and the Roaring Forties, 1982.)

A Noisy Exit

In August 1883 James Wallis, the chief of police on the small island of Rodrigues in the western Indian Ocean, added this note to his official report for the month:

On Sunday the 26th the weather was stormy, with heavy rain and squalls; the wind was from SE, blowing with a force of 7 to 10, Beaufort scale. Several times during the night (26th-27th) reports were heard coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns. These reports continued at intervals of between three and four hours, until 3 pm on the 27th, and the last two were heard in the direction of Oyster Bay and Port Mathurie.

It wasn’t gunfire. It was the “death cry” of Krakatoa, 3,000 miles away in Indonesia — the loudest sound in recorded history.

Descartes’ Theorem

Image: Wikimedia Commons

If three circles “kiss,” like the black circles above, then a fourth circle can be drawn that’s tangent to all three. In 1643 René Descartes showed that if the curvature or “bend” of a circle is defined as k = 1/r, then the radius of the fourth circle can be found by

descartes' theorem

The ± sign reflects the fact that two solutions are generally possible — the plus sign corresponds to the smaller red circle, the minus sign to the larger (circumscribing) one.

Frederick Soddy summed this up in a poem in Nature (June 20, 1936):

The Kiss Precise

For pairs of lips to kiss maybe
Involves no trigonometry.
‘Tis not so when four circles kiss
Each one the other three.
To bring this off the four must be
As three in one or one in three.
If one in three, beyond a doubt
Each gets three kisses from without.
If three in one, then is that one
Thrice kissed internally.

Four circles to the kissing come.
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance from the center.
Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There’s now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend’s a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of the squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.

To spy out spherical affairs
An oscular surveyor
Might find the task laborious,
The sphere is much the gayer,
And now besides the pair of pairs
A fifth sphere in the kissing shares.
Yet, signs and zero as before,
For each to kiss the other four
The square of the sum of all five bends
Is thrice the sum of their squares.

(Thanks, Sean.)